Novel of the week

The Bone Hunter

Tom Holland <em>Little, Brown, 352pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0316648191

Ross, the palaeontologist character from Friends with hair like an oil slick, would like this book. It portrays the world of science as peopled with colourful mavericks who are equally at home in the Wild West as they are in academia. Gnarled, spitting cowboys gather round in reverential awe as various geologists lecture them on the fascinating wonders contained within a fossil or a hunk of rock.

Tom Holland's previous works have focused on supernatural horror. The Bone Hunter deals with horror of a different kind, namely man's greed and capacity for violence. Set in the American frontier at the end of the 19th century, the story follows the search for the "thunder bird", which is not a puppet aircraft from International Rescue, but a living pterodactyl. The flying dinosaur, thought to have been extinct for millions of years, is sighted in a remote valley in the Big Horn Mountains by countless redskins and, more importantly, by two cowboys.

This sets off a race between America's most prominent palaeontologists to be the first to see it for themselves. The race is joined by Captain Dawkins, ex-soldier, amateur geologist and "a man of almost painful rectitude and honour", who has sailed all the way from England. During the voyage, he meets a spoilt rich girl called Lily, who is on her way to marry a lord. This sets off a Titanic-style "first class meets third class" romance, complete with fiddle-playing and barefooted peasants.

On arrival in New York, Lily's betrothed is seemingly forgotten as she becomes caught up in geological passions and sets off to solve the mystery of the pterodactyl along with everyone else. Chuck in a band of mercenary soldiers, a cop with a grudge seeking to find the man who murdered his partner and an escaped hand of Cheyenne savages, and pretty soon Wacky Races is taking place, with any number of candidates in position to take the role of Dick Dastardly.

The book doesn't really find its pace until it leaves the tedious world of formal manners and petty squabbles in New York. Holland's attention to historical detail and plot setting makes for a slow start but, once in the mountains, he conjures a believable atmosphere of prairie life at a time when the Native Americans were all but relegated to the role of bogeymen and bit-players in Wild West shows.

The end of the book contains all the elements of a classic western. There is betrayal, heroics, passion and murder. But even during the shoot-out, geology and palaeontology are never far away. Ross would love it. As to the existence of the pterodactyl? Never trust a cowboy, I say. They drink too much whisky and eat too many beans.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube